Narrow Escapes

One of our narrow escapes

I don’t remember exactly why I went to Max’s house that evening. It was early February, 1977, and my visit had something to do with preparing for the drive from the Bay Area to New York, with getting assistance or information from one of her housemates. Max—whom I’d never met before—listened quietly during a long conversation about the proposed trip. When the housemate and I were done talking, Max turned to me and asked, “Why don’t you come upstairs and get to know me better?”

I followed her to her bedroom. The walls were covered with brightly colored art, some prints, some of Max’s own drawings. I was impressed. She put on music and we danced and then went to bed. I hadn’t expected to start a new relationship just before leaving town, but there it was. We saw each other a few more times, and I told her I’d be in touch when someone let me use their phone for a long-distance call. (For you younger readers: This was before mobile phones. There were only landlines.)

The plan was to help my friend Pamela close down her New York apartment and relocate to Berkeley—her second big move, the first being from her native England. She had purchased a used car, a big boat of a sedan. We loaded the trunk with our sleeping bags, some changes of clothes, bags of marijuana that we got from her lover Suzanne, who was a small-time dealer, and books from the Women’s Press Collective (WPC)—anthologies like Lesbians Speak Out, some lesbian poetry collections including my own Crossing the DMZ, and The Women’s Gun Pamphlet. And then we were on the road.

In those days you could show up at a women’s center anywhere in the United States, and whoever was running the place would let you sleep on the couch or the floor. My plan was to go from one city to the next, selling our feminist literature and pot while avoiding motel bills. Since the WPC, like all radical presses, ran mostly on unpaid labor and donations, I was also planning to do fundraising at the women’s centers.

Reno was our first stop, and that’s where things started to go downhill. We drove to what was supposed to be the women’s center, hoping to spend the night, and found out that the director wanted us to register. She kept a log of visitors and shared it with the police. Pamela suggested that we sign false names. I refused. We slept in the car that night. It was pretty cold, at 4500’ altitude in February. In retrospect Pamela was right, and I had been too self-righteous to agree.

In Salt Lake City we connected with an instructor at one of the universities, a lone feminist in a sea of patriarchal Mormonism. She was separated from her husband, and I got the impression that an actual divorce would have cost her her job. She put us up for the night in a spare bedroom. We both liked her.

At the women’s center in Denver we met someone who used the alias Woodwoman. Originally from South Africa, Woodwoman was Jewish, a lesbian, a Communist, and a supporter of the African National Congress. She had left the country one step ahead of the apartheid police. She didn’t say how she had entered the United States but did let us know that she wasn’t here legally. At home in South Africa she had read my article “Notes of a Radical Lesbian” in Sisterhood is Powerful, and had come to understand that her sexuality wasn’t just an incidental or private matter but was as political as her race and sex. I was enormously gratified to learn that something I wrote had traveled halfway around the world and affected another woman’s life.

Somewhere in Iowa we encountered a snowstorm. I was behind the wheel. The car skidded on the ice and spun around, stopping 90 degrees to the road. I threw the doors open and flipped on the overhead lights. The oncoming driver slammed on the brakes and stopped without hitting us. It was a scare but I felt good about the way I had handled it. We slept at the center in Iowa City. The women there were connected with the university, and like many feminists at that time, wore denim overalls. They were delighted to get their hands on literature from the WPC.

By this time Pamela was really angry with me. “I was supposed to be the star of this trip,” she said. “Not you.” I was astonished. What was she expecting? Perhaps that I would be a combination of social secretary, relief driver, and presenter of Pamela as a celebrity? She wasn’t known as a writer, artist, or organizer. She wasn’t even a member of any feminist organization. I had been getting us free housing by using my credentials as a writer and WPC member. People were paying attention to me because of those credentials.

In NYC, while Pamela closed down her apartment, I stayed with friends for a few days, and from there was able to call Max and tell her we had arrived safely. I continued to peddle our wares. Audre Lorde bought an ounce of marijuana. Later she called to say that it was wretched stuff and didn’t even give her a buzz. I had no idea as I’d never tried any of the weed Suzanne had given us. I refunded the money, feeling terrible. Was it all crap dope that Suzanne wanted us to unload on people across the country, people who couldn’t come after her? How many women had I sold it to?

By now it was March, and time to head home. Pamela had recruited a guy I’ll call Jimmy, a volunteer programmer from WBAI who wanted to go California and was willing to share expenses. I don’t remember him doing any of the driving, as he was a native New Yorker and probably never had a license. Pamela drove the whole way. She wouldn’t let me behind the wheel, and barely spoke to me during the rest of the trip. When she did, it was with contempt. Jimmy took his cues from her. I was miserable and began to hate them.

We took the southern route. I don’t remember where we slept, except that we holed up in a motel in Mississippi during a tornado watch. The trek across Texas was interminable. Pamela sped up and was doing 80 when the highway patrol pulled us over.

I was sweating. If the cop searched the car we were done for. Texas was—and still is—giving people life sentences for drug possession, even for the smallest amounts. Possession of lesbian literature and copies of The Women’s Gun Pamphlet wouldn’t have impressed a judge favorably either. Pamela, however, sweetly apologized for speeding, pretending to be an ignorant foreigner. Her British accent and blonde hair must have made the right impression. The cop was equally polite, escorting us to the courthouse where Pamela paid a fine and they let us go. Pamela gloated over her triumph. After that, though, she kept to the speed limit.

In Tucson, where my friend Mary lived, I told Pamela to let me off and I would find my own way home. Mary put me up for the night and drove me to the highway in the morning. I started hitchhiking. By evening I had reached Bakersfield, where I unrolled my sleeping bag in a vineyard and slept in the furrows. At first light I was up and out before the farm workers could find me.

From there it was half a day’s ride home. Angry, exhausted, and traumatized, I never spoke to Pamela or Suzanne again. However, I had sold most of the books and at least half of the weed, had obtained pledges of $9,000 for the WPC, and was looking forward to exploring my new relationship with Max.

Shortly after my arrival, I found that Judy and Wendy had been been persuaded into another, more ambitious plan for keeping the press collective running.

To be continued…

3 Responses to Narrow Escapes

  1. Connie Byrne July 12, 2021 at 9:21 pm #

    I’m glad to be reading something from you again. I was afraid you had succumbed to this wretched Covid -19 virus and the history you’ve been sharing would remain incomplete.
    As always, you’ve written and shared another glimpse of what many of us missed out on during the early years, history for which I personally am not fascinated by, but also grateful to hear.
    Thanks as always, Connie

  2. Connie Byrne July 12, 2021 at 9:24 pm #

    Auuugh…always read before hitting submit! History for which I am NOT ONLY fascinated by, but also grateful to hear.

  3. Martha Shelley July 12, 2021 at 10:17 pm #

    Thank you, Connie! I didn’t write for a while due to recovering from a minor surgery, but I’m still alive and kicking. Seriously kicking (I still do some kung fu practice). No Covid-19, am fully vaccinated.

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